23. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator J. William Fulbright 1

[Here follows discussion of legislative issues relating primarily to U.S.-Latin American relations.]

President: I saw you ran out last night before Strom Thurmond2 told you where the hell the cow at the cabbage. When you saw old Strom getting ready to get up, you and Joe Clark3 went to disarmament.

Fulbright: Bill Foster had asked us some time ago and I hated to back out at such a late date. I didn’t care bout hearing Strom anyway.

President: He’s got the answers if you’ll just listen to him.

Fulbright: God almighty, he gives me the willies.

President: He says that the trouble is that the targets, that you don’t know anything about these targets, that you’re not hitting the right targets.

Fulbright: Well, I hope you can get those God-damned people to talking over there. I hate when I see all those figures and all those amounts and so on, you know, it’s just awful.4

President: You are not going to get them talking until they are convinced they can’t win here. And you just let them know here, the statement that you made a long time ago that they can’t win here, that the hawks are more in control than anybody else and they are stronger than the President. When they are convinced of that, I am convinced that you can sit down and get an agreement with them on your ’54 and ’62 [Geneva Accords] and maybe have an election there with the understanding that we will just pull out and abide by the results of the election just like we did in the Dominican Republic.

Fulbright: I can be fair to you but you have to get the first step and that is I don’t think you can ignore the Viet Cong. They are the bastards of the fight.

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President: We are not ignoring them. When they get ready to transact business, they’ll take the Viet Cong exactly like we’ll take South Vietnam.

Fulbright: Why don’t you encourage that damned Assembly, some of those native South Vietnamese, not Ky the general, but whoever is in there and coming into that constituency and encourage them very quietly, through your CIA or somebody, to get in communication with the Viet Cong and say, “For Christ’s sake, let us have an election. We’re just killing each other for nothing.”

President: They are just as much under the control of North Vietnam, Bill, as that little stenographer that you sit outside who takes your direction. It is just the same way, and they got just about as much independence as a sharecropper in Mississippi.

Fulbright: This is an approach to them. Maybe they would then put it up to the North?

President: You see these people don’t want anybody to know that they are missing with us and they don’t want the Viet Cong or the Chinese to know it. But they see what is happening in China and they see the days are numbered with the Russians having to force everything, so they are going to talk if things just keep on. They are hollering too much not to want to talk. All this yelling—you see your friend Ashmore today with his story.5 They’re going to talk in a reasonable length of time, in my judgment, if we don’t blow it here. And if they decide they can wait until the next election, why they might do it to see if they blow up the election. Otherwise, they’ll talk, and when they talk, we can make reasonable terms. We can let them bring whoever they want to. If they want the Viet Cong to come there, their voice will be heard as we have said. But they are going to write the ticket. And I think one of the most insurmountable things has been removed by Manila, which you all laughed at, but when we told them in Manila that we weren’t going to stay there, that we’d come home and said it publicly all over the world, all eight of them agreed, and South Vietnam agreed that it did not want us, and we’d come out of there just like we did in the Dominican Republic. Then I think that is what’s going to get it done if we do it.

I think whether we do it or not is whether they think they can wear us out here. If they think they can, they will do it because they want that territory. Otherwise, they’ll be willing to settle it. And I think the Indonesia thing is just waiting to see what happens. I think that they’ll be throwing Sukarno out before long and they will be willing [Page 54] to put two or three divisions of their own in there. And I think they can see that, and they can see China crumbling up. This is getting closer to a solution if we just don’t blow it. The Goldwater statement today hurts us.6 It’ll just give us hell because he has been out and he has all the dope about how they are being restrained and restricted. Strom, if it had been public last night, would have hurt us. He’s just back and his was all on the targets and not using our weapons. Some of Dick’s [Russell] statements, the same way. The Joint Chiefs, how we keep them and your man from Arkansas and the rest of them suppressed, I don’t know.

But we are going it pretty good. If we can hold out just a little while longer, I think we will get somewhere. They will not fight anymore; they get out of the way, you see. It’s awfully hard on them. What they want us to do—there are some targets we should take, the steel mill and the damn cement thing and the stuff that they are manufacturing, but we have held back because we are so close and they are so basic and there is such a change. We’re not going to hit their dikes or their water or their civilians or their cities or anything like that. But everything you hit, you kill some. It is just a question of how many. But there are some things in which we could make it harder. They are having hell now. They have thousands and hundreds of thousands repairing, trying to keep going and it’s not easy for them. They’re not going to do this much longer if we can—I don’t think they would be sending their folks back home. They’re going back and forth now, you see, with these messages. We’ve just got to hold a stiff upper lip and be careful and don’t rock the boat. When these folks go to making speeches, just get off the floor. Don’t get in a debate with them. Just let Strom ignore them, you can’t answer them. You can’t answer them.

I just hope that Goldwater—somebody said I should have him come in and report to me because he was the nominee. I said, “The hell with the nominee. I don’t want any reports like that. I want to play them down as much as I can.” I read what our Navy admiral said. I don’t even know who he is and I can’t find the damned fellow. But he got right in to the conference table, right in the middle of it, right in Warsaw, and they just came up and said, “Well, the hell with it. Here is Johnson—the man wouldn’t be speaking without him,” and they interpreted what he says as representing me just like you say when Gromyko says something, that that’s a Soviet line. They do not understand our system and that is the great danger and has been the danger in all of these wars we have had. That people misjudge us.

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Okay, you have given me what I wanted. I don’t want to take all day, but I did want to find out about these folks, and you keep it silent. Now, listen, when I have to change out there, I am seriously thinking, I have talked to you about this once before, but you may have forgotten it. My number one problem in Vietnam as I see it is what we can clean up to try to administer it and pacify it. If Lodge gets out of there, I am inclined to put Westmoreland over in his place.

Fulbright: Well, it has become such a major military matter, I guess it is …

President: He’s level-headed, he is quiet, he will cooperate, he will do what we tell him to do. He doesn’t fight with us, he holds the folks in line, he’s got the prestige, he knows the country, he can make Ky and them act, and he has the Constituent Assembly and other things, and I believe he’ll be more effective than Lodge if Lodge comes out of there, and Lodge is going to come out of there after the Constituent Assembly gets out of the way, in my judgment. And you once said before, well, it is military anyway, and I wouldn’t want a military man in other countries, but for the transition; just trying to get to where we can feed these refugees, where we can take care of these people, where we can protect what we have cleaned up and I believe that if we are going to have a pacification program, Bill, it is awful hard to get these AID and State Department men to manage the job. They are not managers.

Fulbright: No, that is awful bad. In fact, it is so bad it has to be all with a military operation.

President: Okay, that is all right. Do you know Westmoreland at all?

Fulbright: No.

President: I wish you did. Why don’t you go to Vietnam?

Fulbright: Oh, Jesus, I’m too old to be running out there.

President: Well, you’re not too old to run around and make those speeches. Arthur Goldberg is going out there next month. You could ride out there with him and be back in 10 days.

Fulbright: I promised Mike [Mansfield] I’d go to Mexico with him.

[Here follows discussion of U.S.-Mexican relations and a trip to Mexico that Fulbright was planning.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Fulbright, January 20, 1967, 5:30 p.m., Tape F67.03, Side A, PNO 1 and 2. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. Senator Strom Thurmond (R–SC). The reference is to briefings on foreign policy for members of Congress which occurred at the White House the previous day.
  3. Senator Joseph Clark (D–PA).
  4. Fulbright published an eight-point plan for peace in his book The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1967). The plan called for a cessation of bombing of the North and a decrease of military actions in the South leading to a four-party conference that would result in the creation of a neutralized Vietnam.
  5. Ashmore publicly stated that the North Vietnamese were likely to engage in peace talks but would not do so until the United States ceased its bombing of the DRV.
  6. Upon returning from a 4-day trip to Vietnam on January 20, Senator Barry Goldwater (R–AZ) called for an expansion of military efforts in order to bring the enemy to the bargaining table but opposed an invasion of North Vietnam at the time.